Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Walt Disney, part I: Disney's folly


Let's begin at the beginning, shall we?

Directed by David Hand, et al
Written by America (based on Europe)
With Adriana Caselotti (Snow White), Harry Stockwell (the charming Prince), Roy Atwell (Doc), Pinto Colvig (Sleepy and Grumpy), Otis Harlan (Happy), Scotty Mattraw (Bashful), Billy Gilbert (Sneezy), Eddie Collins (Dopey), Moroni Olsen (The Magic Mirror), Stuart Buchanan (The Hunstman), and Lucille La Verne (The Evil Queen)

Spoiler alert: love's first kiss

Being first has its advantages.  Being thought of as first, even moreso.  Take 1916's Birth of a Nation, a movie that didn't invent cross-cutting, but is reputed to have done so—and also a movie that valorizes the Ku Klux Klan.  Yeah, you haven't seen it either, and even if it did invent cross-cutting, if it hadn't existed, something else would've.  And yet its name, and its accomplishment, have not been forgotten in over a hundred years.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is not the first feature-length animated film, either, but is reputed to be (and only because people speak without nuance: for it is the first feature-length cel-animated film), will surely live at least as long, and doubtless longer, because it is amongst the greatest rarities in cinema, a movie made before most people alive today were born that general audiences still want to see.  Sure, this is in part because the successors of its creator, Walter Elias Disney, have made sure that it's one of the first things every child, especially girlchild, does see.  But it's probably not necessary to go down that road just yet.

Meanwhile, it's important to recall, when considering this very important historical object (and, to get it out there, this pretty darn good movie), that being long—that is, being long by the standards of cartoons of the time, 83 minutes in its final form—is actually the biggest first it can boast of.  What Snow White does otherwise is combine all the firsts that Walt Disney and his collaborators had innovated over the last eighteen years into a single, beautiful, coherent package.

It is more the Citizen Kane of animation, then—if you'll permit me a mildly anachronistic reference—the cartoon that codified everything about a form which had been developing for a while: synchronized sound and music (first heard in 1928's "Steamboat Willie"); three-strip Technicolor (first seen in 1932's "Flowers and Trees," the first anything to use three-strip Technicolor, in fact); realistically-animated or at least humanoid-looking women (first attempted, by Disney anyway, in 1934's "The Goddess of Spring"); and even, in an addition so late that scenes were re-animated to include it, the prize of Walt Disney Productions, the twenty-foot tall argus they called the multiplane camera (first beheld in its splendor only a month earlier, in November 1937's "The Old Mill"—alongside a cartoon's very first use of effects animation so totally rad it could produce a lightning strike capable of almost knocking me off my couch).  Of course, there was also cel animation itself—hardly invented by Disney, but advanced to a tremendous state during his company's Golden Age.

Sure, I know "Steamboat Willie" wasn't even the first cartoon to use synchronized sound—but doesn't that just dovetail ever-so-nicely with our theme?

So, unlike worthless old Birth of a Nation, there's an argument to be made—tenuous, for the Fleischers and the rest existed, but an argument—that without Snow White, cinema would be poorer for its absence, that we would not have an American animation tradition of anything like the same scope we have, and, given Disney's  global influence, perhaps not a Japanese one, as well.  Certainly, not either as we know it.

None of this is to say that Snow White, which perfected so much about American animation, is a perfect film.  Nor even nearly perfect: artistically, I don't like it as much as at least one of those shorts, specifically "The Old Mill," which is an outright masterpiece of cute-but-not-cutesy animal observation that could've fit comfortably into Fantasia, or the better parts of Bambi, both still some years down the line, and I like a great deal about "The Goddess of Spring," too, though less for its go at physically-plausible feminine animation, and more for the brute fact that Disney made a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Rape of Persephone (and also for the horrific rainbow Technicolor of its Hadean underworld).

But technically?  Well, you get what you pay for, or at least Walt did: by the time his studio was finally finished with it, after years of active development (and after almost two decades of the notion brewing in Walt's head), Snow White had cost very close to one and a half million 1937 dollars, and that's not even including all the many freestanding shorts that been made partly in order to testbed the techniques and technology that would go into the feature.  This was on top of the idea, current at the time, that any Technicolor cartoon would be a blinding, horrible thing to experience at a feature's length.  However stupid it was, this idea had affected early color live-action films, too, which is why The Black Pirate is so dang brown.  In fact, even Walt's wife Lillian, and his brother and business partner Roy, thought this might well be the case, and neither were terrifically enthusiastic about Walt's passion project.  Indeed, considering the nature of some of Disney's more enervating 1930s shorts, which is quite possibly "most of them," their fears maybe weren't completely ridiculous—after all, the list of pre-Snow White cartoons that aren't at least faintly upsetting is a rather short one.  It's no wonder the industry took to calling it "Disney's folly."

Then it came out, and nobody called it that anymore.

The story, I presume, you already know.  But to remind you is the way of things, so: by way of Disney's first storybook introduction, we are taken to a medieval Germanic neverwhen, where exists a very Evil Queen, vain and jealous, who has lately come to notice that her stepdaughter, in the flower of her youth, has surpassed her in beauty, at least according to the apparently objective standards employed by her slave, a disembodied magical mirror with no reproductive system.  Skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and barely legal (in 15th century Germany)... you know her name.  The fact of her beauty has not escaped a handsome prince, either, who arrives to see Snow White, reduced to the rags of a scullery maid by her vindictive stepmother, but not reduced in allure.  This initial meet-cute would be one of the film's several additions to the Grimm Bros. story, and one of its better ones, though Snow White remains the most doggedly unromantic of all of Disney's princess romances, and its particular Prince Charming, ironically enough, the most resolutely charmless.

Well, this being a situation that the queen cannot allow to stand, she dispatches a huntsman to take the maid out into the wilderness.  There, he shall kill her and tear her heart from her body, to present as proof of the deed.

She had the box made special.

But the huntsman, of course, cannot destroy a creature so fair and innocent, so he incites her to run, and run she does, through a nightmarish forest of her imagination until she arrives upon an enormous menagerie of friendly animals, who bring her to the only sanctuary in the wood, the small cottage of a family of dwarfs, each named after their most salient trait, or Doc.  The dwarfs greet the intruder with skepticism, but despite the one named Grumpy's warnings about how easy it is for a woman to use her feminine wiles to subvert the will of a man, all of them, including Grumpy, proceed to allow more-or-less precisely that to occur.  When the queen discovers she's been tricked, she plots again, now to poison the fugitive princess.  She even succeeds; but her rash vengeance soon leads her to her own demise, while Snow White, discovered lying in state by her prince, is awakened with her first kiss.  You get it: there is no need to belabor the essence of the Grimm tale.  Though I might like someone to explain the significance of the dwarfs to me, because all my ideas about what they represent would sound perverted.

We can forget, through familiarity, that Snow White is honestly somewhat strange as a narrative.  It's easy to understand why this is (it's an 83 minute film based on an eight paragraph story), but it started the tradition—let's not say "problem," because I don't think it always was a problem—of Disney's princess films being an hour and a half of almost nothing actually happening.  Indeed, if this were a problem, it wasn't solved until Disney stopped using real fairy tales and started using counterfeit ones from the modern era (while nonetheless warping them all out of recognition).  Notably, this didn't occur until fully 52 years later, long after Walt's death, when they decided to have a Renaissance that consciously hearkened back to their first, formula-establishing, and (even today! including Frozen!) most-commercially-successful film, yet did so without actually duplicating the distant dreaminess of their Golden and Silver Age princess stories.  But though it would be repeated, it would never be more noticeable than it is in Snow White, and, by my count, there are only four plot beats in the entire film: Snow chooses exile instead of death; Snow meets her protectors; the queen attempts to finish the job; and Snow loses her metaphorical virginity, overthrowing the queen and, by completing this part of the cycle of womanhood, beginning a new one.


(Unfortunately, Disney's adaptation, while typically congratulated by animation nerds as a comparatively mature film, and while certainly enjoyed by many adults over the years, loses the coolest part of the Grimm version, namely the part where the prince executes the queen by hilarious public torture; surely it would've been a blast to animate.  But, then again, the Grimms were perfectly willing to sanitize their material themselves, based on their own mores: there's evidence the original folkloric story simply made the queen her actual mother, making it too hardcore even for them.  Incidentally, most prior versions do explain where the hell Snow's father is, whereas Disney's does not.)

Anyway.  At least a majority of the movie is taken up wholly with Plot Beat Two, and that's what I mean by Snow White being weird: it has somewhat epic, mythic parts, but mostly it's what we'd call, these days, a hang-out movie.  It's... pretty good as a hang-out movie.

Now: I am not, and have never been, in love with most of this film's character designs.  Snow White is of the 30s (the early 30s, really, or even the late 20s) in the way almost all Disney princesses are of (or, owing to the long lead-ups to an animated film, a little behind) the time of their particular creation.  But, man, Snow White really is, and if you said "realistic, more chaste Betty Boop," I wouldn't strongly contradict you, nor should I, because she was, after all, animated by Boop's designer, Myron "Grim" Natwick.  Even so, Snow certainly works—the use of "live-action reference," Disney's code for "rotoscoping," which they say they hated but used routinely, especially when it came to women, works extremely well, especially in her wonderful dancing sequence.  Perhaps needless to say, I never object to her.  (Besides, the shading of rose in her cheeks is a fine testament to the subtle, too-often-unsung work of Disney's slave force of painters, all women, all segregated, and surely all princess stories themselves, right?)

I do, however, object to the dwarfs, on occasion—especially everyone else's favorite, Dopey, who tends to actively disgust me, with his slobbering, his overdrawn eyelashes and ears, and the odd joy the animators seem to take in the line of his buttocks—and I am always struck by the enormous contrast between all the dwarfs' overtly-caricatured "funniness" and Snow's impressionistic, but recognizable, youthful beauty.  Frankly, even having seen the film God knows how many times (at least three times in the past four years!), I've never been sure if I like that contrast, even if I find it interesting:

Nor am I sure if I care for their phallic noses.

Yet I can't imagine what else they could possibly look like.

As for what they do with the dwarfs, this is mostly anodyne comedy, some decent, some not-so-decent, some raising questions I'd prefer not to ask, like "why do you even have soap if you don't wash?"—and yet, through what alchemy I've never been sure, in Golden and Silver Age Disney (especially the princess stories), "anodyne" has always been a little bit of a strength.  They're relaxing movies, this, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty; and I've always had to assume it's something about the skill and love that was put into the illusion of movement and into the delivery of real emotion by way of what would become Disney animation's tradition of precisely-calibrated gesture.  (Though I've never been a fan of Disney Tears—those awful little rain droplets—which make their first feature film appearance here along with so many other techniques.)  So, yes: the long middle act of Snow White is almost solely light cartoon slapstick.  Walt's standing offer to all comers was $5 a gag.  On this count, he definitely got what he paid for: they come in bulk, and, even for the time, they're a little cheap.

So it obviously plays—again, Snow's dance with the dwarfs is fantastic, and her marshaling of her spectacularly-animated forest animals as a tidying army is most wonderful, too, and (even if this undercuts my last point slightly) the dwarfs' songs are uniformly much, much better than any of the somewhat shrill numbers Snow White sings by herself, by way of Adriana Caselotti's even-more-of-its-time vocal performance—but I'm very, very sure that were it not for the best dwarf, Grumpy, going against the grain of Snow and the other dwarfs' extremely low-key charms, those charms would get very old, very quickly.  Too quickly, at least, for the forty minute stretch where they're practically all this movie's got.

I am also sure that if they were all this movie's got, nobody would be treating it like a timeless classic, not even the audiences in 1937 whose ecstatic reaction to this much color and this much careful animation is much more understandable in their context than in our own.  But it is not all this movie's got, because this movie's got its wicked, wicked queen, and, for a villain with no name (I've seen "Grimhilde," but there are too many "Grims" in this review already), barely any machinations, and whose demise marks the first and most completely out-of-nowhere "Disney death," she makes a disproportionately huge impression.  Based, some say, on Joan Crawford (and I hardly see how she couldn't be), she wasn't always thus: earlier in development, Walt had approved an unathletic, sloppy, comic queen, probably not unlike what would happen with the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland.  Wisdom prevailed eventually—the story scarcely makes sense without a beautiful evil queen, and would be woeful without a serious one—and her designers, Joe Grant and Walt himself, and her chief animator, Art Babbit, and all the artists in Walt's Nunnery who painted her in such strikingly villainous colors, and, of course, her life reference and vocal performer (in her swan song as a film actor, no less), Lucille La Verne—they all nailed it.

Every best part of Snow White (at least, that you can rightly call an independent "part") belongs to the queen: the eyeless horror of her magic mirror; the snarling anger and glee on her face as she plots and schemes and raves about carving out teenagers' hearts; her proto-psychedelic transformation into the form of a cackling crone; the effects animation of lightning and storm surrounding her death; the skeleton she sneers at on her way through her dungeon, a life-giving cup just out of reach, which we can easily infer (for it certainly makes the movie much better), are the bones of the huntsman who betrayed her, picked clean by the rats; the way she savagely mocks her raven companion (doubling as symbol, as the cutesy friendly fauna of youth and guilelessness are replaced with animals of darker feather and crueler intent); and, in the film's single best gambit, the two vultures who follow her on her dire mission to kill Snow White, whom we are meant to believe fly for the poor princess, but were always there to enjoy the feast of a freshly-killed queen.  She's lingered on in our memories, despite so many disadvantages: besides being nameless, our villainess is defined by a heroine who does almost-literally nothing, and is too constitutionally stupid to not fall for her trickery.  Naturally, it comes as no surprise that Babbit and his colleagues enjoyed drawing the queen more than any other character in the film.  (There are negative things to say about the queen, I suppose, but they're almost all story choices—the way she obnoxiously narrates what we're looking at as her mystical arts come together, like we can't recognize a death's head when we see one, or the way she uses noticeably different speech patterns as the crone, including one of her last lines, the pretty terrible, coming from such a regal presence, "I'll fix ya!"  But these are minor things.)

Of course, the best "part" of Snow White is the lighting, but that is too omnipresent to pin down to any one scene (the second best "part" might be the neat way so much of the dialogue rhymes without anybody stressing it, and the third best is its frighteningly-good water effects); but, as for the former and the latter points, suffice it to say that Snow White has some of the most evocative and well-placed and well-animated shadows and water in any animated film in history, part-and-parcel with the gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, vibrant and alive but never too poppy or distracting, that so effortlessly evoke the mystery and majesty of a primordial Teutonic forest.  But of course the film is beautiful.  We've established that already.

Yet it is a good place to rest.  Snow White set the standard for quality in animation, and Disney's studio would go on to exceed that standard, over and over, at least until the day came that they couldn't.  As far as conceptual quality, well... you can't have everything.  As we'll see.

Score: 7/10


  1. So we're doing THIS marathon, are we? Good luck, my friend. I only made it through Fantasia, but you're much better at sticking through these things than I am.

    1. ...Yeah. That's why I watched and reviewed Warcraft six months ago.

      I think it'll help that I like the Golden Age stuff. The real test is when we get to the Xerography Era.